Okay, so I couldn't resist that title. But after 60 college applications, 56 acceptance letters, 5 full ride scholarships, and one yes...to University of Illinois, it's so obviously fitting. Diamond Walker is an already an accomplished young woman, and she hasn't yet graduated from high school. A product of Centennial High School's AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) — a program for students that show academic promise and motivation, yet need some additional supports to pursue a college preparatory track — she's an activist and aspiring lawyer, a delight to talk to, and a force to be reckoned with.
Smile Politely: Wow, so you’ve had a whirlwind couple of weeks. How has it been, getting all of this attention?
Diamond Walker: Being in the eye of the public has been a real adjustment for me. When I go out in public someone will whisper “is that her?” But the best experience from it is having people actually tell me “oh my gosh, my daughter wants to be just like you,” or “I’m really inspired to do the things that you’re doing,” I don’t know the word for it, there’s no word. I feel so accomplished.
SP: Has there been a downside?
Walker: Yes, I hear the trolls on social media. I read all of the comments, but I don’t reply back to any. But like, these are real people in my community that actually have true hate for people of my color, or where I come from...it’s just a reality check. I knew it was out there, but now it’s directed towards me. But I feel like that’s what I need to move forward.
SP: I’m completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of applications you submitted. Can you tell me about that process?
Walker: I applied to a lot of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and there’s an app called the Common Black App that’s similar to the Common App, that you do regular college applications on. With this application it’s a one click application, and it applies to all of the HBCUs on their list, with only a one time fee. The application process for that was very easy. I did have to apply to some outside of that and it was really time consuming. I’m really grateful that I found that app.
SP: So you ultimately settled on U of I, thankfully we get to keep you here. Why Illinois? What do you feel like they had to offer you, or maybe what do you feel you have to offer them?
Walker: Really, people ask me this all the time. People my age don’t see the value in the University. But it’s a great school. And, I’m really into activism and I feel like I can’t change the world if I can’t change my hometown. I can’t leave to go pick something else if the place where I originated from is so messed up. So that was really on my heart in the whole decision process.
SP: I first encountered you at March for Our Lives, standing on a picnic table, speaking out against gun violence in a blizzard. What led you into activism? How did you find that voice and start speaking out about the issues around you?
Walker: I feel like I always had it in me, ever since I was a child. I was always interested in Martin Luther King, my family is from Memphis so I always went to the museums down there. I’ve always been really big on history but I never knew that I could participate in it (activism) because as I child I thought “oh my gosh, it’s over.” But as I grew up, I realized that there’s so much still wrong with this world. Ms. Aikman (Walker’s AVID instructor at Centennial) has been a really good stepping stone because she’s a big activist in this community. I led behind her this whole time, and now I’m branching off. She’s been a good mentor and has given great advice in this process.
SP: Do you have other role models? People you look up to?
Walker: I didn’t have anyone specifically to look up to, because there was just nobody around me who I wanted to be like. Everybody was facing the odds of being African American, of being in poverty, of failing school...I never really had anybody that I thought “oh my gosh, I want to be like you,” so that’s what gave me the most motivation.
SP: To become that person.
Walker: Yeah. I want to be somebody that my sister looks up to, my children look up to. I just want to be that person where the whole community is taking part in what I do.
SP: Do you feel that adds pressure to you? To BE the role model?
Walker: Yes. I feel like everybody is watching me. Recently I’ve been having trouble in my calculus class...it adds that pressure of “I can’t fail because all of these people are watching me.”
SP: What advice do you have for younger students then who are looking up to you? What do you want to tell them?
Walker: I would tell them not to give up. That’s my biggest thing. I have to have pep talks even now. Ms. Aikman just gave me one before I left because I was just freaking out because of my class. The main thing is to not give up...If you really want to get somewhere in life you have to just keep pushing forward. When you fall, it's getting back up and saying okay, I have to do it because my life depends on it. Ms. Aikman always told me "if they tell you no, you find a way to yes."
SP: What issues are most important to you to focus on as you continue your activism work?
Walker: I’m really going to focus in on the minority community, especially with immigration, with mass incarceration, the cash bail system, the criminal justice system. I’m going into pre-law, and hope to become an attorney some day. That’s really what I’m passionate about, and what motivates me to get up.
SP: Okay so you’re a super accomplished young woman who is ready to take on the future. But, you’re still a kid too. What do you like to do when you’re NOT changing the world?
Walker: That’s a really hard question. Some people wouldn’t call this fun, but I take a lot of what I would call “business trips.” I just came back from New York, I went to D.C. with the ACLU. I’d love to take trips and travel the world, I hope to study abroad one day. I always find a way to incorporate academics in my fun.
Diamond will be doing an SP Instagram takeover in a few weeks for Centennial High School graduation. Be sure to follow her as she takes us through this important milestone in her life.
Photo provided by Diamond Walker.